Mlada [concert performance]

Prince Mstivoy – Mikhail Petrenko
Princess Voyslava – Mlada Khudoley
Morena/Svyatokhna – Olga Savova
Prince Yaromir – Avgust Amonov
Lumir – Zlata Bulcheva
Veglasniy/Varyag – Edem Umerov
Novgorod husband – Sergei Kozlov
Novgorod wife / First and Second Female Merchants – Lia Shevstova
First merchant – Andrei Lebov
Second merchant / Tiun – Vadim Kravets
Moor – Andrei Popov

Chorus & Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 27 May, 2006
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Ending the Mariinsky’s five-day residency at Symphony Hall, Valery Gergiev directed his massed St Petersburg performers in only the third UK performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s little known dance-opera, “Mlada”.

There are those that may have seen Michael Tilson Thomas’s LSO performance in one of his Barbican festivals devoted to Rimsky-Korsakov and his influence (back in 1989) or the Bolshoi’s Glasgow performance staged the following year (a production available on DVD), but for most of Symphony Hall’s audience it would have been completely new.

Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t sold out, but those who were there (including many faces recognisable from London concerts – making it clear that this was a rarity worth travelling to collect) were extremely warm and loud in their appreciation. The performance was also recorded (for the hall’s archive, I understand, although I also hear that there may well be ‘Symphony Hall Live’ recordings in the future – so it might have a commercial after-life), which meant that the 40-strong chorus was squeezed on to the platform, immediately behind the orchestra, with enough room for the percussionists to move behind between the antiphonal timpani and gongs (as well as panpipes, of which more anon).

I was perhaps at a better advantage than most of the audience, as I had researched the work. Aside from the change in interval, which now fell much more logically at the end of Act Two, there were again no surtitles. However, given that the title role of the work is danced and a lot of the music is non-vocal, “Mlada” can stand a concert performance very well.

The reason for “Mlada” being rather unknown may well have to do with its hybrid, ballet-cum-opera nature, but it is about as tuneful a work as you could possibly want, with its national dances and songs (Czech, Novgorodian, Lithuanian and Hindu – very Scheherazade-like, let alone the Procession of the Nobles, which is the single famous off-cut from the score), and sumptuous scoring elsewhere.

The tale is one of jealousy in love and in power, with Prince Mstivoy and his daughter Princess Voyslava vying for Prince Yaromir’s land and hand (respectively), which is why they have murdered his betrothed, Mlada, and sought the help of the evil spirit Morena. But, every time Voyslava attempts to get her hands on Yaromir, Mlada’s ghost appears and saves him, even when the massed evil spirits conjure up Cleopatra to entice him. “Mlada” is perhaps the only work which can reference both Adolphe Adam’s Giselle as well as Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle, as ultimately Morena brings death and destruction on them all and the waters rise like the Rhine at the end of “Götterdämmerung”!

Gergiev brought this magical musical maelstrom alive in the most vivid of colours – the timpanists turning panpipe players in the third act with great aplomb – aided and abetted with his casting from his company soloists. Without the eponymous role (no need for a dancer in a concert performance!), there was at least one Mlada on stage – Mlada Khudoley, resplendent in primrose yellow, as the lovelorn murderess Princess Voyslava. The rather young Mikhail Petrenko looked increasingly out-of-salts as her father, although his rich bass was characterful enough. Avgust Amonov, who had starred as Alvaro two nights earlier in Verdi’s ‘Forza’, was Yaromir, an unlikely Prince perhaps, with his static shoulders and heavy frame, but engaging enough to watch.

The remaining large cast played its character parts with ease, the second act, with its jostling merchants, marriage hopefuls and dancers probably benefiting from the fact that a translation wasn’t provided for all their shopping-list minutiae. Symphony Hall’s acoustic afforded the score a rich ambience that the performers seemed to relish and it is difficult to conceive of a more persuasive case for the work – save for staging it, of course.

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